The Gorilla Habituation Experience
Introduced in 2015 and available for a minimal duration of only 2-3 years is the gorilla habituation experience in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. To become habituated to tourists’ presence, each gorilla group has undergone an extremely delicate process, lasting around five years, gradually getting accustomed to the presence of humans.
Park rangers start by spending a short period with the gorillas every day, at a certain distance that represents the limit of the gorillas’ comfort zone. As the years go by, they gradually increase the time and reduce the distance until they deem the gorillas ready for paying clients to visit them.
The gorilla habituation experience for the first time allows paying clients to participate in this process. It is limited to two gorilla families in the southern part of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Bukingyi and Bushaho, in the park’s Rushaga sector. Due to the steep terrain, dense vegetation, and high altitudes, a high level of fitness is required.
Gorilla habituation is the process through which a gorilla family gets used to human visits. When there were plans to introduce gorilla tourism in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, the remaining task was to ensure that the mountain gorillas get used to tourists’ visits. Remember, the gorillas were living in the forest and were not used to human visits.
A gorilla habituation process takes 2-3 years, and it involves an advanced team from the Uganda Wildlife Authority making frequent visits to the gorilla family. Upon establishing that the group is used and welcoming to tourists, the gorilla family becomes ready for tourists’ visits.
History of Gorilla Habituation Process
The habituation of wild gorillas has long been a useful tool for research and conservation programs. Decisions to habituate gorillas typically reflect a balance of the benefits gained and the costs/risks. In general, the benefits include that it: generates revenue through tourism for governments, local communities, and businesses; enables detailed research on feeding ecology and social behaviour; provides daily protection for the groups monitored; enables gorilla health monitoring; provides a mechanism for examining trends in population dynamics by monitoring births, death and dispersal patterns.
In contrast, the costs of habituation are that it: increases the risk of disease through exposure to humans in close proximity; increases risk of poaching due to loss of fear of humans; requires financial resources and staff to monitor habituated gorillas as a lifelong commitment.
Both the costs and benefits can be illustrated in all locations where gorillas have been habituated. For example, several habituated Grauer’s gorillas were killed during the political instability in Kahuzi-Biega National Park, Democratic Republic of the Congo (Yamagiwa 2003), and evidence of a virus transmitted from humans was found in Virunga mountain gorillas suffering from respiratory disease (Palacios et al. 2011).
The economic benefits derived from gorilla tourism can be enormous. Still, they may come to a halt due to political instability, which is the current situation in Dzanga-Sangha National Park, Central African Republic.
Conservation and research efforts in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda, which contains about half of the remaining mountain gorillas globally, did not begin in earnest until the early 1990s following its being gazetted as a national park in 1991. This is in contrast to the Virunga Massif’s mountain gorillas, which have been the focus of intense efforts since the last 1960s.